Lincoln, Nebraska, where I live, is on the western end of the Central time zone, and as a result, the sun goes down pretty late on the clock here. Even at this time of year, sundown isn’t until 5 PM, and it’s not really dark until at least six. We usually get home with the kids around five, and then we do dinner and playtime inside until bed. That means that the children, who are five and three, are rarely outside when it is really dark out, and they don’t get to see the stars, beyond the bright planets, very often.
The past weekend was an exception; it was Chanukah and there were many evening celebrations, as you are supposed to light the candles at sundown, so we were out past bedtime. On Friday night, as we went out to our car to drive home, my daughter, the older kid, looked up at the cloudless sky and marveled at the number of stars that she could see. I looked up too, and took the opportunity to point out one of the few constellations that I can identify, Orion. (Whenever I think about Orion, I think about John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” — sorry.) “See, it looks like a person, with a top part and a bottom part, and those three stars are a belt,” I explained. My daughter looked at this a little more, and then asked, “Does the world want it to be like that?”
Interesting question — what she meant was whether the stars were intentionally arranged in the shape of a person, or whether it was just something that people made up when they looked at the stars. The answer is the latter, of course, although perhaps the ancients thought differently. Our conversation for the evening went on to other topics in astronomy (“Planets are round,” she said, “so it’s very hard to stand on them.”), but I kept thinking about what she had asked me.
As scientists, we collect data from the world around us, and try to make patterns out of it that we can understand. These patterns are theories, really, and as more data come in, we re-evaluate the theories to see if they are still consistent with the data. Do all the stars make shapes that look like familiar things? Are all of the measurements from the LHC consistent with a Higgs boson at 125 GeV? Are we humans just imposing an anthropic view onto the world? Measurements throughout particle physics, not just at the LHC, seem to support the idea of the Higgs mechanism. Is that consistency just a pattern that we have invented? Or does the world actually want it to be like that?
A year from now, we hope to have an answer to this question. As we head into 2012, a potentially decisive year for particle physics, I hope that all of our Quantum Diaries readers have the opportunity to ask, and answer, their own questions about what the world wants it to be like.